Zimmerman's Attorney Is Respected By Prosecutors

George Zimmerman will remain in a Sanford, Fla., jail for at least several more weeks. The admitted killer of Trayvon Martin had his first appearance in court Thursday. Attorney Mark O'Mara declined to ask for bail citing the unprecedented public attention to the case. O'Mara was thrust into the spotlight when Zimmerman's original attorneys quit.

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George Zimmerman spent a second night in custody in Florida. The neighborhood watch volunteer faces second degree murder charges in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman appeared in court for the first time yesterday flanked by his new defense attorney, Mark O'Mara. NPR's Joel Rose profiles the lawyer who was thrust into the spotlight when Zimmerman's original attorneys abruptly quit.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Mark O'Mara's offices occupy an old craftsman house on a quiet side street in Orlando. It was here in the front yard that O'Mara held a low-key press conference with reporters earlier this week, a sharp contrast to the noisy rallies that have been typical of the case so far.

MARK O'MARA: So there's a lot of issues, and there's a lot of emotions that we need to calm this down. It needs to be tried in a courtroom, which is the only place it's supposed to be tried. And Mr. Zimmerman needs a very good and focused defense, so we're going to build him one.

ROSE: Calm has been O'Mara's mantra since he began representing George Zimmerman this week. O'Mara started off as a prosecutor, but he's worked as a defense attorney in central Florida for more than 20 years. Elizabeth Megale teaches law at Barry University in Orlando, where she was also a defense attorney. Megale says O'Mara has a reputation for being one of the best in town.

ELIZABETH MEGALE: He's well-known, he's known for doing a good job. He was there at, I think, 10:00 at night at the jail recently, and so he's the kind of attorney that goes the extra mile for his clients. And I think Mr. Zimmerman needs that in this case.

ROSE: O'Mara has earned the respect and friendship of prosecutors too.

JEFF ASHTON: Mark is more subdued. He's not a real theatrical guy, but very effective.

ROSE: Jeff Ashton is a former prosecutor who's known O'Mara for years. Ashton helped prosecute Casey Anthony in a high profile murder trial in central Florida that dominated local and cable TV news for months in 2011. Mark O'Mara worked on the case too, but as a TV commentator, not a defense lawyer.

Jeff Ashton says that experience makes O'Mara the perfect guy to represent George Zimmerman.

ASHTON: Because he understands what the media's job is, and so I don't think, like some lawyers, he's going to get upset at the media trying to do its job. By the same token, he's not one of those guys you're going to hear giving his opinion about his client's guilt or innocence in ways that are inappropriate.

ROSE: O'Mara knows something about the Trayvon Martin case too. Before he was Zimmerman's lawyer, O'Mara was in demand as a TV analyst as recently as this week.

O'MARA: Other people call it the license to murder statute.

ROSE: But then Zimmerman's original lawyers quit. By Thursday, O'Mara was in court representing Zimmerman and all over the national airwaves, gracefully deflecting questions and answering others from news outlets, including NPR, CNN, and ABC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOLOUS: How worried are you about Mr. Zimmerman's ability to get a fair trial in Seminole County?

O'MARA: I think if the trial was held today, it would be extraordinarily difficult. I'm hoping things will calm down. I'm hoping the community truly will let us do our job of the prosecutor and me.

ROSE: There's that word again - calm. It also came up after Zimmerman's first court appearance yesterday, when O'Mara explained to reporters why he decided to wait before seeking bail for his client.

O'MARA: It just didn't make sense with where the case is now, with my client's status, and quite honestly with the attempt to truly calm this (unintelligible) case down rather than demand a presentation of evidence which might only increase the fervor around the case.

ROSE: At that appearance, and others in the past few days, O'Mara looked like someone who's watched the process up close before and knows what he's getting into.

O'MARA: I understand the undertaking. It's going to be challenging.

ROSE: A challenge Mark O'Mara seems to be relishing in his first days on the job. But the case is expected to be in the national spotlight for months, if not longer.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Sanford, Florida.

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